Game of Thrones' Winterfell location, Northern Ireland: The real-life fantasy

Fans of the HBO TV series Game of Thrones will know that the show's doom-laden catch phrase is, "Winter is coming".

I'm dressed in cumbersome medieval costume and learning to shoot arrows in the courtyard of "Winterfell", the bleak home of House Stark in the series (the good guys) and I can tell you this: winter has come.

It's Irish spring, but it's freezing, and my bare fingers are as cold and stiff as icicles as they draw the bow back and then hold the tension while I line the arrow up with the target. I'm not especially good at this, but I hit the target just outside the bullseye, relieved. "Jon Snow", our instructor, has threatened to chop off the head of the worst archer.

It begins to rain hard and we have to finish the lesson early, so luckily I miss the moment of truth. As anyone who watches the show knows, the consequence of making a mistake is usually horrible violence.

Winterfell is in fact the ruins of a farm on the 330-hectare Castle Ward estate, not far from Belfast. Castle Ward itself is a 17th-century country house with a classical Palladian entrance and an English Gothic rear, more Downton than medieval fantasy. But, with the help of a lavish amount of computer-generated imagery, the estate's abandoned towers, moss-covered stone walls and rustic farm houses have been transformed into the ancestral seat of House Stark in the Kingdom of the North.

Winterfell burnt down in the second season finale, and now its ruin makes only the occasional appearance in the program. But it has spawned, quite literally, a cottage industry at Castle Ward. With a little bit of convincing, HBO allowed local tour operator Clearsky Adventure to borrow actual GOT costumes, and use the cottages and stables of Castle Ward for the archery experience and for cycling tours around the estate, which has nine GOT locations on its grounds.

At the entrance to the farm, there's the tower from which young Bran Stark was pushed by Jaime Lannister after the boy caught Jaime in a clinch with his sister Cersei. One of the cottages served as the exterior for Tyrian's house and Little Finger's brothel. It's now available for holiday rental. An inlet of Strangford Lough became The Twins, a bridge over the River Trident, where Robb and Catelyn Stark travel to safety. A solitary tower on a green hill overlooking the lough was used in the famous 'Red Wedding' episode. Theon Greyjoy beheaded Ser Rodrik in the courtyard outside the barn where we have tea and biscuits.

If you're not a GOT fan this will be meaningless. Fortunately I am, even though I have come to it late. I'm not exactly a "Thronie", as the devoted fans are known. Nor am I a "Set Jetter", a person who travels the world visiting film sets.

But I realise I'm just a wee bit obsessive when our tour bus stops at a quarry secured behind a cyclone fence and I can't wait to get off to have a closer look at what amounts to a group of ramshackle sheds nestled amongst the limestone. With the help of computer-generated imagery, the quarry becomes Castle Black and the Wall, where Jon Snow and the Night Watch defend Westeros from the White Walkers.

About 80 per cent of Game of Thrones is filmed in Northern Ireland, and it is estimated to have injected more than 80 million pounds into the economy. As our tour guide Dee Morgan tells us, "everyone and their granny" is employed in some capacity on the production. There are the truck drivers who transport the equipment from location to location, the jewellers who make the royal brooches and insignia, the metalworkers who forge the swords, and, of course, the many extras who are employed as soldiers, servants, whores and courtiers.

See: How Game of Thrones transformed a country

Extras Northern Ireland is a big employer around here, and the local men keep their beards long. (Vikings also films in Northern Ireland and requires hirsute extras.) Dee tells us she knows an extra who is so proud of being in a scene with Stannis Baratheon, Lord of Dragonstone, that he has Stannis's breastplate tattooed on his chest.

If you're in Northern Ireland anytime between now and October, you may be lucky enough to stumble across one of the sets. It's advantageous to know a crew member, because you can get the inside running on who's who and where's what, which is important social currency in these parts.

There's much interest this year in whether Kit Harington, who played hero Jon Snow in the first five series, will be seen in Belfast pubs this summer. (Fans will know why.)

See: The truth about Jon Snow's nude cave dip

Dee, who rightly believes in fairies but not leprechauns, is our oracle, like the priestess Melisandre in the series, not only because she seems to know all the gossip, but because she once actually sat on the Iron Throne, which is locked away in HBO's studios in Belfast. "You need to be the queen to get onto the set," she says.

Game of Thrones boosts the local economy even in the colder seasons; the bleaker weather is truer to the mood of the show. There are formal day tours to the locations from Belfast, or visitors can download maps if they want to drive to some of the more northerly locations, such as The Dark Hedges, a picturesque archway of twisted beech trees that featured in the episode where young Arya Stark escapes from King's Landing dressed as a boy.

The Causeway Coast and Glens Route is one of the loveliest in the world, and even in the driving rain its crystal waters, rocky coves and whitewashed cottages are pure eye candy. There are old churchyards and the occasional sign for something called Crazy Sheep Racing. In poor weather, there are always beckoning pubs.

At Ballygally Castle in Antrim, which is now a hotel, you can sit down to a Game of Thrones Afternoon Tea and dine on Lannister Egg Rolls, Dothraki Trifle with mini Dragon's Egg and Jon Snow cakes for £22 per person.

In the beautiful village of Strangford, a few minutes' drive from Castle Ward, you can enjoy a Game of Thrones banquet at The Cuan, a delightful family-run inn. Actors from the series regularly lodge here. Hosts Peter and Caroline McErlean are such GOT enthusiasts they've devised The King's Banquet at Winterfell, inspired by recipes in a GOT-inspired cookbook, A Feast of Fire and Ice, at £25 a head. Diners feast in a dedicated banquet room decorated with props.

Peter puts on a cloak and enlists a waiter to help give an impromptu reading of a welcoming scene from the show. Then we're served an enormous amount of food: medieval pease porridge, cod cakes, honey-roasted chicken, venison pie, and iced blueberries in sweet cream, all washed down with wine served in goblets.

In the village of Glenarm, a small family-run goldsmith, Steensons, has been charged with making the fine pieces that adorn the royal characters in the show, such as Joffrey's crown, Lannister lion pendants, and the beautiful gilded rose worn by Margaery of House Tyrell.

Brona Daniel of Steensons shows us a couple of links that are left over from the heavy chain of hands that adorned Ned Stark when he was the Hand of the King. "It took forever to make," she says. "But it was gone in a blink."

As we drive around the countryside, with an iPad loaded with scenes from the show as visual reference, the most fun (or craic, as the Irish say) are the casual conversations with locals about their relationships with the show and its cast.

The actors dine at Ox in Belfast. They drink and this or that pub. Kit Harington has been seen in Nandos. In a sense the Game of Thrones route is a pilgrim trail like the Camino de Santiago for those who wish to pledge fealty to the House Stark or Lannister.

See also: The top destinations for a Game of Thrones-inspired holiday

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.discovernorthernireland.com

www.ireland.com

www.clearsky-adventure.com/gameofthrones

www.hastingshotels.com/ballygally-castle

www.thecuan.com

www.thesteensons.com

GETTING THERE

British Airways flies daily to Belfast from London Heathrow. See britishairways.com.

STAYING THERE

Located in Belfast, this former 19th-century bank was extravagantly extended in 2011. Guests can stay in the plush Victorian wing, with rooms from £160, or the chic Art Deco wing, which has rooms from £180; suites from £250. See themerchanthotel.com.

The writer travelled as a guest of British Airways and Tourism Ireland.

KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS

EDDARD (NED) STARK

The Lord of Winterfell and Hand of the King. Played by Sean Bean.

CATELYN (CAT) TULLY

Ned's wife and Lady Stark of Winterfell. Played by Michelle Fairley.

JON SNOW

Ned Stark's bastard son. Commander of the Night Watch. Played by Kit Harrington.

ROBB STARK

The eldest son of Eddard Stark and Catelyn Tully and is the heir to Winterfell and House Stark. Played by Richard Madden.

BRAN STARK

One of the youngest of the Stark children, paralyzed when pushed out of a tower by Jaime Lannister. Played by Isaac Hempstead-Wright.

ARYA STARK

The youngest Stark girl, one of the many kick-arse females in the show. Played by Maisie Williams.

CERSEI LANNISTER

Queen of the realm and wife of Robert Baratheon. A nasty piece of work. Played by Lena Headey.

SER JAIME LANNISTER

Brother to Tyrion and Cersei, as well as Cersei's lover. Played by Danish actor Nicolaj Coster-Waldau.

TYRION (THE IMP) LANNISTER

Brother to Jaime and Cersei, a small man with intellect and wit. Played by Peter Dinklage.

TYWIN LANNISTER

Father to Jaime, Cersei and Tyrion, the lord of Casterly Rock and the richest man in the realm. Played by Charles Dance.

PETYR (LITTLE FINGER) BAELISH

The Red Keep's master of coin, brothel owner; conniving and clever. The character you'd have your money on. Played by Aidan Gillen.

THEON GREYJOY

The Starks's ward and youngest son of Lord Balon of the Iron Islands. Played by Alfie Allen.

PRINCE JOFFREY BARATHEON

The obnoxious, cruel prince of Westeros, later king. Played by Jack Gleeson.

STANNIS BARATHEON

The middle brother of the three Baratheons, potential heir to the throne. Played by Stephen Dillane.

MARGAERY TYRELL

The daughter of the House of Tyrell, aligned with the Lannisters. Thrice married, a survivor (so far.) Played by Natalie Dormer.

MELISANDRE

A sexy priestess in service to Stannis Baratheon, known as 'the red woman.' Played by Carice van Houten.

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